Court ruling casts doubt on Government plan for minimum alcohol prices

The Irish Government's plan to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol suffered a setback today after a new legal ruling from the European Court of Justice.

Advocate general Yves Bot set out the tests that would have to be met before minimum unit pricing (MUP) could be brought in.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which was challenging the Scottish government's plans for a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol, insisted Mr Bot's opinion "encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal".

Mr Bot said a European Union (EU) member state could only introduce such a policy if it demonstrates more advantages or fewer disadvantages than other alternatives - such as an increase in taxes.

He said the fact that increased taxation "is capable of procuring additional advantages by contributing to the general objective of combating alcohol abuse does not justify discarding that measure in favour of the MUP measure".

Following an appeal hearing, the case was referred to the Luxembourg court last year for its opinion on six points of European law, resulting in the publication of the new opinion.

The Government welcomes the opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice on minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol products, which was published this morning, and is encouraged by some aspects.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said he was encouraged by some aspects of the ruling however.

"I am encouraged by the opinion of the Advocate General which indicates that minimum unit pricing may be compatible with EU law if it can be shown to be more effective than other alternative measures," he said.

"Therefore, I will be asking my officials to study his opinion and its implications as we wait for the final judgment of the Court which is expected towards the end of the year.

"In the meantime, the publication of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill remains a priority. This Bill is now at an advanced stage and I look forward to publishing the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in the coming weeks."

The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) expressed its strong disappointment at the opinion set out by the court today.

Padraig Cribben, Chief Executive of the VFI said: "Whilst today’s announcement by the ECJ is an initial indication, this is a big blow to the industry and is absolutely nonsensical.

"The abuse and misuse of cheap alcohol being sold by supermarkets that sell alcohol as a loss leader needs to be urgently tackled, regardless of the measure.

"As a key industry stakeholder, the VFI has called for action to ensure the safe and responsible sale of alcohol for several years and today’s announcement is a step back in the progress we have made over the last couple of years.

"We are extremely disappointed by the opinion taken by the ECJ today and now call on Minister Varadkar to continue the work done at home to address alcohol misuse. This includes the core issues of availability, promotion and price."

Mr Bot said that, in his opinion, the policy of minimum pricing "meets the objective of combating alcohol abuse in a consistent and systematic manner".

He added: "The question that arises is whether the objective of protecting public health pursued by the Scottish authorities could not be attained in a less restrictive and equally effective manner by a fiscal measure.

"In other words, would a higher tax on alcoholic beverages enable the same objective to be attained as rules imposing a minimum price, while being less restrictive of trade?"

Mr Bot said it "is for those responsible for the drafting of those rules to show that increased taxation is not capable of meeting that targeted objective".

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